Background on Angels and on the celebration of Michaelmas, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

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Inspired by the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha, the story as told in Season of Angels takes a few liberties with the text in order to emphasize the loving companionship and protection provided to the anxious young Tobias by the Archangel Raphael.

The following historical and cultural notes about angels offer background you may find useful as you help your children celebrate Michaelmas, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, in late September.

Angelic protection: In the late 19th Century, the Rev. Charles Grafton recommended that a child's introduction to God begin with talk about angels, especially their own Guardian Angel. Angels, he writes, are appointed to watch over and guard and protect children. St. Basil writes, "It is a teaching of Moses that every believer has an Angel to guide him [or her] as a teacher and a shepherd." There is a legend stemming from Matthew 18:10 that the Guardian Angels of children always stand close to God because what they do is so important. By introducing children to the angelic protection which surrounds them, parents can give them a deep sense of God's personal, individual love and concern.

Angels as messengers: Our word "angel" comes from the Greek aggelos, translated from the Hebrew mal'akh, meaning "messenger."' Brother John Mathis, S.S.J.E., points out, "Now, messengers don't just boot around on their own; they come from a source and are aimed at a target." They come from God, sometimes with specific messages for specific people, sometimes simply with the message of love. Scholars note that as messengers, angels may appear as strangers; we often don't recognize them, just as the boy Tobias simply accepts Raphael as a traveling companion without recognizing that he is an angel. Angelic messages can come through other people and through the natural world; children, in their openness to both worlds, can even serve as angelic messengers to the adult world.

Named angels: Historically, angels appear in nearly all religions. The ancient Hebrew understanding of angels stems from the period of Babylonian exile and was influenced by Zoroastrian myths about angelic warfare. Angels appear in about half the books of the Bible and are mentioned over 300 times.

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Of the named archangels, Michael is the leader; he is referred to as the angel of righteousness and is noted for his mercy. The Midrash Rabba credits Michael with writing Psalm 85, and tradition says that Michael is recognized by Sarah as one of the "men" who predict Isaac's birth--as well as being the angel who later stays Abraham's hand as he prepares to slay Isaac. Mystical writers equate Michael with the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding and the Shekinah, or Presence if God, in Jewish teachings. Besides being a warrior angel, Michael is named the benevolent angel of death, for it is Michael who weighs the souls of the dead.

Gabriel is the heavenly messenger, a special angel of the Christ, appearing, for example, to Zachariah and to Mary to announce the births of John and Jesus. Islamic tradition sees Gabriel as the 10th and final archangel, the one who rules over the human sphere and all that lies below it; as such he is called the Angel of Humanity. Gabriel is also noted for his courage.

Raphael appears only in the Book of Tobit, and his story is told here in Season of Angels. Raphael is especially noted for the quality of love. The Eastern Church says that since the Christ always existed, any appearance of angels in Hebrew Scripture should be seen as partial manifestations of Christ. According to this theology, as the angel Raphael accompanied Tobias, Christ was there within the angelic presence. This recognition of Christ as both preexistent and contained within angelic visitors is echoed by two Native Americans from the land of the Anishnabe who name Christ as "with us through our entire history"--even before they knew his Name--and as "an angel or a guardian spirit." What all this means is that each child's Guardian Angel contains an element of Christ.

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The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels: The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, also known as Michaelmas, dates back to the 6th Century, making it the oldest of all angel festivals. The feast day now also honors Raphael and Gabriel as well as Michael. It is celebrated September 29 in the Western Church, while the Eastern Church celebrates on November 8. In Ireland, Michaelmas is one of the major feast days of the liturgical year.

In England, bonfires have long been part of the celebration. Angels are said to be God's first creations, made from fire. An angel, remember, appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and an angel (often identified specifically as Michael) was the fourth "man" seen in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. That's why bonfires (or even candles) are particularly appropriate for Michaelmas festivities.

A 15th Century custom promised that eating goose on Michaelmas would ensure financial luck for the year (geese were particularly plentiful in late September), while another ancient tradition said that blackberries shouldn't be eaten after Michaelmas. Blackberries actually ferment or mildew in early October, but the tradition insisted that the berries turn bad because the Devil spat (or urinated) on them when he landed in a bramble bush after Michael threw him out of heaven on this date. Blackberries are often included as part of the feast itself, to be eaten up by day's end.

Besides being concerned with their own feast, farmers on Michaelmas used to scatter a handful of every kind of grain for the wild birds (and for their own poultry and cattle) in order to bring good luck to the farm.

Angels as intermediaries: In both Scripture and tradition, angels fulfill the function of gateway -- or bridge -- between heaven and earth. Jacob's ladder, of course, is the most striking visual image of the free movement of angels between the realms, while the most memorable and touching auditory image of angels comes from 1 Kings: "An angel, a still small voice." Whatever words or images human beings use to describe angels, they serve to remind us that we live within their care and protection. As Raphael watched over Tobias, so is every one of us protected by an angel who holds us in the heart of God. Suffering can't be avoided, but if we can hear the still small voice inside us and sense enfolding wings around us, we can find our way through such times and trials:
For God will give holy angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.

  • "Beings of Light." Daily Om. 17 Nov. 2008.
  • Church, F, Forrester, Entertaining Angels. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
    Davidson, Gustav. A Dictionary of Angels. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
  • Eliade, Mircea, Editor in Chief. The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
  • Grafton, Charles. "Pastoral Work." A Journey Godward.
    Mathis, John, S.S.J.E. "Entertaining Angels Aware." Cowley vol. 20 no. 4. Spring 1995.
  • Singer, Isadore, Managing Editor. The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnall's Company, 1901.
  • Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Angels: Messengers of the Gods. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1994.

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